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Idaho AD Rob Spear discusses upcoming Sun Belt vote

Idaho athletic director Rob Spear spent some of his time last Sunday in Phoenix at the Sun Belt Conference meetings sharing some aspects of the upcoming case the University of Idaho will make to remain in the conference as a football-only member. To him, it was received positively. 

But on March 10, it will be the Sun Belt Conference presidents and chancellors from its 11 full members who will meet in New Orleans to vote on whether to extend Idaho's football-only membership in the conference beyond the 2017 season. Idaho will need nine votes to be able to enter into a new contract.

Idaho President Chuck Staben will make a video presentation remotely from Moscow to the league in February, with an argument mainly focused around on what Idaho's football program presents to the competitiveness of the league. 

"I think we have a very compelling case on why we should be a part of that league going forward," Spear told the Spokesman-Review on Thursday. 

Spear compiled a list of six computer ratings widely used by football conferences and used by the former Bowl Championship Series ranking, showing the Vandals ranked No. 8 in the conference ahead of New Mexico State, Louisiana-Monroe and Texas State. The latter two are full conference members. 

Idaho will argue removing the Vandals won't help the Sun Belt's quest to overtake Conference-USA or the Mid-American Conference in its pursuit of more College Football Playoff money. 

On top of the $10 Million given to each conference, there is $34 Million up for grabs in performance bonuses. The Sun Belt ranked fifth in the last round of payouts and received $3.7 Million. A jump to third would net the conference an additional $3.1 Million. 

"If you’re going to make a decision, you’re really going to make a decision on the schools that are impacting you, it’s not Idaho. Idaho is not (negatively) impacting the Sun Belt right now," Spear said. 

The presentation will try demonstrating taking out a program like Louisiana-Monroe jumps the Sun Belt to the No. 4-ranked Group of Five conference using the former BCS rankings, while removing Idaho would not change the Sun Belt remaining No. 5. 

The Big 12 Conference made things interesting on Wednesday when it led legislation to deregulate conference championship games, allowing any conference with less than 12 members to play a championship game as long as the conference has a round-robin conference scheduling format. 

Idaho and the Sun Belt both anticipated this legislation being passed.

The Sun Belt Conference currently has an eight-game conference schedule, it would need to add a conference game to hold a conference championship game if it cuts down to 10 members. 

There are three possible deterrents to this for the Sun Belt. 

First, guarantee games. This would be a deterrent for individual programs which play up to two guarantee money games against Power 5 opponents. However, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson has expressed an interest in the Sun Belt playing fewer of these games in the future. 

Two, future schedules. South Alabama and Troy have both filled out four-game non-conference schedules for the 2018 season, when the Sun Belt would be required to have nine conference games for a conference championship game if it were to cut ties with Idaho and New Mexico State. Texas State and Arkansas State have two scheduled games without an inevitable guarantee game. Although, it's realistically possible to move around scheduling contracts a couple of seasons in advance. 

Third, which ties into the guarantee game concern, nine conference games could potentially give Sun Belt teams less of an opportunity to schedule games against other Group of Five programs, Spear says. 

"We’ve talked a lot about a nine-game conference schedule. It always gets voted down; the thought process is you need to give yourself an opportunity to play some games against those other Group of Five conferences," Spear said. 

The 2016 season will be the last in the foreseeable future where Idaho will face two Power 5 schools in one season (trips to Washington and Washington State). Idaho is slated to face two Mountain West and one MAC opponent in addition to a single money game in both 2017 and 2018. 

"What we’ve done at Idaho — there was concern schools were playing two money games — what we’ve done building our non-conference schedule into the future is (one money game every year) … We have adjusted our non-conference schedule moving forward along the lines of the Sun Belt’s expectations," Spear said. "We are doing what the Sun Belt wants us to do as far as our scheduling goes into the future."

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Here is the rest of my sit-down interview with Spear. 

On how travel will factor into the presentation: "Most of it will be based on the competitive side. You probably may see the travel impact, which I think there’s no travel impact. The Sun Belt schools that come to Idaho and New Mexico State already get a travel subsidy … Football travel is probably the least impactful on the life of a student-athlete as far as missed class time goes."

I asked Spear about the $10M every conference receives from the College Football Playoff. Previously, it was $1 Million per school. It delved into this response: "​The Sun Belt has needed Idaho twice in its history. In 2000 when Idaho became a founding FBS member they needed us to create an FBS football conference. In 2013 when we joined again, they needed Idaho to provide that conference stability, Idaho and New Mexico State. What we did was provide them established, existing FBS programs, not schools that had a transition for two years schools that’d impact your scheduling. Idaho and New Mexico State, when they needed us we were there. At that time the rules were that you got $1 Million per team in your league up to 10 members, then shortly after we joined they changed it and said every G5 league gets $10 Million no matter how many members you have."

Spear showed me a map of all the FBS programs in the country, and pointed to the wide open space in the Montana, Dakota region: "Long term, this map I think this is very revealing. Look at this void right now. Montana, the Dakotas, eventually I think you will see something here and that’s where Idaho strives to be at some points of time, with schools in this region."

He delved on the subject some more: "Money is going to drive all decisions, I’ll point to another factor. Conference USA that their television contract is going to be reduced and it’s going to impact every school to the tune of a half-million dollars, potentially. You’re going to see television contracts not be as lucrative as they once were in the G5 conference, in my opinion. The Power Five that money will stay, in the Group of Five that money will be impacted. That’s another potential driving force for conference re-alignment. What strategies will they have the in the future? Will they continue to be a 14-team league?"

Spear will argue to the Sun Belt that the stability of the conference is a factor in Idaho's improvements on the field: "Statistically our football program finished in the top 25 in the nations FBS in 12 team categories. Completion percentage, red zone scoring offense, penalties allowed, tackles for loss allowed. We’re being productive. What’s helped our productivity is having conference stability. We were in a WAC and it was falling apart, very unstable environment. Get into independent, that’s a stop gap thing. That doesn’t give you any stability. Now, we’re in the Sun Belt for two years and you can see what’s happened. We’re being more productive because we have that stability, which is another thing we’ll communicate to the Sun Belt when we have the opportunity."

On how this situation has affected recruiting: "I’ve heard nothing (from recruits) because we feel very strongly that we’re in a good spot. Up to this point we’ve had great success in recruiting, a lot of interest ... He (Idaho football coach Paul Petrino) has had no inquiries on that. If there are, we’re going to show why we’re a productive team in the Sun Belt and why we have every intention of remaining in that league. As it is, we’re guaranteed two more years in that league anyways."

On the Big Sky's standing offer of football membership: "We feel the Big Sky has been very willing to accommodate Idaho. There’s been always been a standing offer on the table from when we joined the Big Sky in all of our other sports .. His (Fullerton's) involvement as a league (with Idaho) has been mostly focus on all of our other sports that we have in the Big Sky."

On the Big Sky Conference as it stands now: "He (Doug Fullerton) understands that Idaho feels that the Big Sky needs to look different in the future. The status quo as it stands is not an option, especially when you have 13 football schools in that league. The league strategically did a great job of buying the real estate around the WAC and putting the WAC out of football business. Well, that strategy now has become, in my opinion, somewhat of a liability because it (the league) is too big. There needs to be something done differently."

On the potential of the Big Sky to become an FBS football league: "There’s a lot of confusion out there. A lot of people seem to think that you could just go form a new league, well there’s an NCAA rule that prohibits you from forming a new league because in order to form a new league you need seven schools that have been together for eight years. So if you look at the Big Sky, breaking it into like schools, which has been talked about … To break it into like schools you can’t meet that criteria."

Big Sky FBS cont.: "That (going FBS) is one thing the Big Sky should look at it and Doug Fullerton has talked about that possibility … I think they could … What’s interesting is current NCAA rules say you can form an FBS football league with six members. It doesn’t allow you to form a brand new league, but the possibility exists to form an FBS league under the umbrella of the Big Sky … There is an opportunity awaiting the Big Sky to do something different that I think sustains the future of that league and we’re happy to be a part of that conversation.

Sean Kramer
Sean Kramer is a freelance correspondent who covers the University of Idaho football team and men's basketball team.

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